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The Light and How to Swing It: Holy Shield and the future of active mitigation

Matt Walsh

Every week, WoW Insider brings you The Light and How to Swing It for holy, protection and retribution paladins. Protection specialist Matt Walsh spends most of his time receiving concussions for the benefit of 24 other people, obsessing over his hair (a blood elf racial!), and maintaining the tankadin-focused blog Righteous Defense.

It's been a little more than two months now since patch 4.2 brought us the redesigned Holy Shield. Since then, we've had ample time to see its true power, to see what an amazing addition to our toolbox it is. And that's only the beginning.

Blizzard is gearing up in either patch 4.3 (or, more likely, 5.0) to introduce a new facet of tanking for all classes -- what it's deemed "active mitigation". Coupled with the (in my opinion, misguided) neutering of threat, the profession of tanking is going to change dramatically. In this column, I'm going to talk about the ramifications of the Holy Shield change in regards to active mitigation -- specifically, what it's meant for paladin tanking in the Firelands and how it points the way to a future of more control over our survivability.

Holy Shield in Firelands

In the lead-up to patch 4.2, there was a huge outcry over the imminent Holy Shield change. The assumption in many quarters was that the coupled loss of 10% constant block chance would make us a weaker tank. However, since the new Holy Shield's debut, I think it's safe to say that it has become exceedingly apparent how powerful it has made us.

Consider Baleroc, whose Inferno Blades can be defanged with the effective use of Holy Shield (along with being block-capped). Every fiery strike within 10 seconds of the 15-second duration of the boss's buff is trimmed by 50%. Use the Mirror of Broken Images on top of that, or perhaps a glyphed Divine Protection, and what would pose a horrible threat otherwise is reduced to a tickle -- so to speak.

Another example: On Alysrazor, when tanking hatchlings, the most dangerous point is when a hatchling goes into a Tantrum. This can happen fairly frequently if you have bad luck with the bird's Hungry debuff. While most cooldowns are far too long (a minute can be an eternity!) to cover your posterior, Holy Shield's 30-second cooldown is perfect for lining up with the Tantrums and gives us far greater control over our lives that we would have without it.

There are other examples I won't go into, but the conclusion here is clear. The new active Holy Shield has made us far stronger tanks.

Nonetheless, the point of all this is that Holy Shield -- and to a degree, Word of Glory and even the Mirror of Broken Images proc -- are a new breed of tank cooldowns. The shape of things to come: short cooldowns that reward intelligent use rather than just popping as soon they become available, and that encourage proactive use rather than reactive flailing.

Hints of what active mitigation will be

In Lead Systems Designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street's Dev Watercooler, Threat Level Midnight, he described in his long-term changes section a vision of what could become of our abilities. The operative phrase here seems to be that tanks will "use the DK model of managing resources to maximize survivability."

He goes further to say that Blizzard "toyed at one point with the paladin Holy Shield being a Holy Power consumer and we think we could do so again [and that they] could make Word of Glory the thing you're supposed to do with Holy Power."

The idea, it seems, is resources for survivability, not for threat -- which since the start of Cataclysm, makes perfect sense. Consider how many times you've been faced with a choice between threat and survivability -- casting Shield of the Righteous or Word of Glory, for example. What choice did you make? Obviously (outside of the first 30 seconds of a fight), you chose survivability. And why not? There is no better choice!

What good is a Shield Slam when you can throw yourself a quick 35k heal while a boss is knocking out your teeth? The truth is that survivability wins every time. That's why Blizzard nerfed Word of Glory and gave it a 20-second cooldown, because people would endlessly spam that as soon as they reached 3 holy power.

The fruits of Vengeance -- when threat doesn't matter, no ones cares about it. And rather than doubling down, I think Blizzard has decided it makes more sense at this juncture just to fold and try something else. If we won't use our resources on threat, then the developers will make it more meaningful for us to use them on survivability.

Moreover, in Ghostcrawler's latest Dev Watercooler, Bloody Mitigation, he laid out three different possibilities for how active mitigation could take form. Personally, I feel like he's leaning toward model three, just based on how many words (and thus extra thought) he's contributed to the choice. There's not much else to chew on in that post, though, just hand waving.

So what does this all mean?

We're on the cusp of the biggest change to paladin tanking since Wrath gave us attacks other than drop Consecration and reflect damage back on the enemy. Assuming Blizzard follows through with its stated intent of what active mitigation could mean, and we could be looking at a vastly different experience when it comes to tanking.

And I think it will be change for the better.

I've been tanking on my paladin for a long time now, since the beginning of The Burning Crusade, and I think right now is the most interesting that tanking has ever been as a paladin. I'm sure this will be an unpopular opinion, so go ahead and start lighting those torches and sharpening those pitchforks -- but if active mitigation provides more of this direction, I am totally on board.

Paladin tanking since the start of this expansion has rewarded good and conscientious tanking like never before. We have this huge toolbox at our disposal with varied cooldowns that are ideal for differing situations. Your survivability has never been as tangible as it is now; you control it, and in many cases, the difference between life and death is whether you use the proper cooldown.

More than any other tank, paladins are masters of their own destinies. If I may so bold as to engage in flagrant hyperbole, the only thing that can kill a paladin tank with all his or her cooldowns up is a dead router (or Baleroc, with twitchy healers...).

Assuming active mitigation is not completely botched (and I know sometimes that is a mighty assumption to make), it will make tanking much more interesting and much more rewarding. I also think it will make it much more fun -- but that might just be me and my preternatural masochism. I'm very much looking forward to the direction 4.3 is taking us, and I encourage you to not fear the future.

The Light and How to Swing It shows paladin tanks how to take on the dark times brought by Cataclysm. Try out our 4 tips for upping your combat table coverage, find out how to increase threat without sacrificing survivability, and learn how to manage the latest version of Holy Shield.

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